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Who is a Christian?

Definitions as used by the earliest
Christians, secular sources, and this website

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Who is a Christian, according to:

bulletThe primitive Christian movement
bulletMillennial Information Exchange
bulletThis web site
bulletGovernment censuses and public opinion polls
bulletOther sources

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The primitive Christian movement: circa 30 CE:

Before the religious conversion of Saul/Paul, the only Christian group seems to have been the Jewish Christians in Palestine. It was formed by the followers of Jesus and was led by James, who was referred to as the brother of Jesus. The Jewish Christians regarded themselves as a Jewish reform group. They attended and supplied animal sacrifices at the Temple, celebrated the Jewish seasonal festivals, practiced circumcision of their male children, and followed the strict dietary and behavioral laws in the Hebrew Scriptures. They regarded Jesus as a prophet anointed by God, and not in any way divine. Beliefs such as the virgin birth and Trinity, were unknown to them. Church organizations, including priests, bishops, formal creeds, etc were not part of their practice; these developments only appeared in Christianity decades or centuries in their future.

Later in the 4th decade of the first century CE, when Paul returned from his three year hiatus, probably in Syria, he introduced his belief system -- Pauline Christianity -- in competition to Jewish Christianity. In 70 CE, the Roman Army destroyed Jerusalem and killed most of the Jewish Christians. The survivors scattered. This left Pauline Christianity largely free to evolve into the Catholic Church.

The earliest creed of the later Pauline Christian movement appears to have been: "Jesus is Lord." The expression is found throughout the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) and on the walls of ancient buildings 1 "Anyone who made this declaration at their baptism was regarded as a Christian." 2 That was a very inclusive definition of "Christian" then, and remains so today, because of the wide range of meanings given to "Lord." It could mean God; it could mean spiritual leader.

There is a widely held belief that the term "Christian" originally meant "Little Christ" This would imply that Christians would attempt to be little copies Jesus; they would attempt to be a scaled-down version of Yeshua of Nazareth. However, there appears to be little or no historical evidence to support this belief. It may have come from the book "Mere Christianity." by C.S. Lewis' (1898-1963).

Acts 11:26 says that "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." This was not a term created by followers of "The Way;" it was created by non-Christians and the name stuck.

Acording to Zondervan's "Bible Dictionary" the word "Christian" came from the Greek word "Christianos." It says:

"The Latin termination –ianos, widely used throughout the [Roman] empire, often designated the slaves of the one with whose name it was compounded."

Inter Varsity Press' New Bible Dictionary comments:

"The formation seems to be Latin, where plural nouns ending in -iani may denote the soldiers of a particular general (e.g. Galbiani, Galba’s men, Tacitus, Hist. 1. 51), and hence partisans of an individual. Both elements are combined in the quasi-military Augustiani (see below). In the late 1st century AD at least, Caesariani was used of Caesar’s slaves and clients, and in the Gospels we meet the Herodianoi, who may have been partisans or clients of Herod (*Herodians)."

"Christian(o)i, therefore, may have originally been thought of as ‘soldiers of Christus’ (Souter), or ‘the household of Christus’ (Bickerman), or ‘the partisans of Christus’ (Peterson). H. B. Mattingly has recently given an ingenious turn to the latter interpretation by suggesting that Christiani, by an Antiochene joke, was modelled on Augustiani, the organized brigade of chanting devotees who led the public adulation of Nero Augustus; both the enthusiasm of the believers and the ludicrous homage of the imperial cheer-leaders being satirized by the implicit comparison with each other. But the name ‘Christian’ may well be older than the institution of the Augustiani." 9

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Millennial Information Exchange:

The Millennial Information Exchange, is an "experimental project designed to create a mechanism for dialogue" on end-time matters. They welcome input from individuals who are academic humanists, Christian, secular, multi-dimensional, Gaian, or traditional/non-Christian. They define "Christianity" as follows: 

"...any and all conceptions generally considered to be based on the teachings of Christ as embodied in the New Testament of the Bible. These beliefs are, of course, in no way incompatible with some multi-dimensional and Gaian ones." 

[They further define Gaian beliefs as referring "to any and all conceptions of the Earth as a single living organism of which humans are part, and, in particular, those which regard this Earth organism as sacred, holy, or divine."] Included in their concept of Christianity would be a person who rejected the beliefs that Jesus was the Messiah, or that he is the Son of God, or that he underwent a bodily resurrection after his death. However, this group feels that Jesus' teaching about God are not compatible with the belief that the Earth itself is divine. 

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Government censuses and public opinion polls:

A census enumerator in some countries simply asks individuals what their religion is, and records whatever they say. Some citizens who are are Roman Catholics, or Southern Baptists, or belong to the Assemblies of God or to the Jesus Seminar, and some are not affiliated with any group or denomination would be counted as Christian. Some might be members of heavily oppressed religious minorities, like Wiccans, who may masquerade as Christians for personal safety reasons. The American census no longer asks questions about religion. The Canadian census collects religious data only during every other poll. Estimates of the numbers of Christians in the U.S. can now only be obtained from public opinion polls:

bulletPolling data from the 2001 ARIS study, described below, indicate that 81% of American adults identify themselves with a specific religion. Also, 76.5% (159 million) of Americans identify themselves as Christian. The latter value is a major decrease from 86.2% in 1990. At the current rate of decline, the percentage is probably about 71% by the end of 2007.

bulletThe Barna Research Group, Ltd. is probably the largest religious polling agency in the United States. They are an Evangelical Christian group. They often define "Christian" to be what others would call "Born-again Christians." i.e. individuals

"...who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who then indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior."

They have determined that about 35 to 40% of the U.S. population is Christian, in this sense of the term. 3 They often report data from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest Mormon denomination, separately as a non-Christian group.

bulletThe National Opinion Research Center has conducted a General Social Survey since 1972.

"From 1972 to 1993, it found that Protestants constituted 63 percent of the national population. But the total declined to 52 percent in 2002." 4 The survey expected that Protestants will reach minority status between 2004 and 2006. "Respondents were defined as Protestant if they said they were members of a Protestant denomination, such as Episcopal Church or Southern Baptist Convention. The category included members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and members of independent Protestant churches."

However, the data may be deceiving. Some Protestant subjects simply reported themselves as "Christians" and were not counted as Protestants. 5

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Other definitions:

bulletMark M Mattison wrote: "A Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, a spiritual brother or sister to others - one who strives to be like Jesus, regardless of denominational background or creedal preference." 6

bulletPaul of Tarsus. "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." 7 This divides the human race into two groups: those who will be saved and attain Heaven, and those who are not saved and will spend eternity in the torture chambers of Hell. This criteria, based on the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, has been frequently used to define who is a Christian.

bulletJoshua Goodli of InspiritNews: "A Christian by definition is a person who believes in and strives to live as Jesus Christ would live. Christianity is not an organized religion, it is not a certain denomination, it is a way of life.8

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This web site:

We accept as Christian:

"Any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian."

Included are: the Roman Catholic church; the Eastern Orthodox churches, conservative, mainline, and liberal/progressive Christian faith groups; The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons); Jehovah's Witnesses and a thousand or so other religious organizations who view themselves as Christian.

This is a very inclusive view of Christianity. It is definitely not shared by many conservative and mainline Christians. For example, the United Methodist Church (UMC), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Southern Baptist Convention all consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be non-Christian. At their 2000-MAY General Assembly, the UMC approved a resolution which stated that the LDS is non-Christian because it holds "some radically differing doctrine on such matters of belief as the nature and being of God; the nature, origin, and purpose of Jesus Christ; and the nature and way of salvation." 

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See also lists of definitions used by some faith groups, and the Apostles' Creed, one philosopher, dictionaries, and Google.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. See the Christian Scriptures: Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians. 12:3; 2 Corinthians. 4:5; Philippians 2:11.
  2. M.J. Partridge, "The Apostle's Creed: A short introduction to the Christian faith." at: http://www.ev90481.dial.pipex.com/apostle.htm 
  3. Barna Research's web site is at: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/Home.asp
  4. "Study finds number of Protestants is falling," Houston Chronicle, 2004-JUL-21. Posted on the Free Republic bulletin board at: http://www.freerepublic.com/
  5. "Poll: Protestant majority in U.S. eroding. Dropped from 63 percent to 52 percent in a decade," The Associated Press, 2004-JUL-20, at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/
  6. Mark M. Mattison, "What is a Christian," True Grace Ministries,* at: http://www.auburn.edu/
  7. Paul of Tarsus, "Romans 10:9," from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), circa 55 CE. King James version.
  8. "THIS Is Christianity," eMediaWire™, 2004-JUL-13, at: http://www.emediawire.com/
  9. "The 'Little Christ' hogwash," Mystic Believer Priest, 2007-DEC-27, at: http://mysticbelieverpriest.blogspot.com/

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Site navigation: Home page > Christianity > Introduction > Definition > here

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Copyright © 2000 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-19
Latest update: 2010-OCT-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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